In a new light: FOIA and a photographer’s records

For Ernest Withers, taking pictures while marching in the Civil Rights Movement helped him document his experience, but a FOIA request from a Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter, inspired by an anonymous tip, revealed that Withers had another role during that turbulent time: federal informant. The reporter and assembled panelists will discuss Withers and FOIA’s role uncovering this hidden history at an event at the National Press Club next Thursday, October 10.

Withers, who had been a WWII veteran and one of Memphis’s first black police recruits before opening his own photography studio, used his access as a freelance photographer to get pictures. But records showed that he had also been relaying information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the 1950s into the 1970s; even after his death, the Bureau was reluctant to acknowledge his role. However, reporter Marc Perrusquia noticed that the Department of Justice had responded to a FOIA request by “carefully redacting references to informants – with one notable exception[:] a single reference to Withers’ informant number.” (For a summary of related coverage, see below.)

The Press Club announced: “The panel has particular resonance today. It comes on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It arrives on the heels of recent news about the government’s sweeping domestic surveillance operations. The discussion hopes to highlight the challenges public-affairs journalism faces as news organizations’ business models are under stress. The discussion will shed light not only on the government’s past surveillance practices but also on FOIA and the public’s right to know what its government is up to.”

We at SGI also note that Perrusquia’s work is part of our “FOIA Files” (#603), and that the agreement between the Commercial Appeal and the Justice Department, for further future releases, means that we will continue to learn more about what the government has done and is doing.

A sampling of coverage (see also the Commercial Appeal’s summary):

Curious about surveillance? FOIA has answers.

Many Americans are curious about electronic surveillance by the federal government. Conveniently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has already helped provide some answers. Although much of the interest and attention arises from journalism in recent days (here, here, here, and here, and related stories), America has had various agencies conducting various forms of surveillance for various purposes for years. For over a decade, journalists have been using FOIA, among other means, to learn more about the surveillance capacities and activities of the federal government:

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Some context for some surveillance

When news broke recently that federal officials were pushing for new regulations to facilitate online eavesdropping (“U.S. Tries to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet”, New York Times, September 27, 2010), it seemed like there were two ways to interpret the situation:

Did the proposed powers represent a significant change from the status quo?

The administration’s proposal… would require reconfiguring of the Internet to provide easier access to online communications. —ACLU

Or did the proposed powers merely enable law-enforcement officials to continue doing what they had been doing?

We’re not talking expanding authority. We’re talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security. —FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni

We couldn’t help thinking this sounded familiar.

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Employees cheated on FBI test on investigations rules, IG says

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is well-known for investigating all kinds of people and groups for civil disobedience involving resistance to American government policies, but in the last year, the Bureau has found a new target: itself.

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